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The Power of Community

The author founded Blackpackers to bring people of color into the outdoors together so they could learn to go back out on their own. After a glorious weekend in the woods, she found the new group would give her the power to overcome unforseen obstacles.

The housing market has changed quite a bit since 2011. For example, over the last decade rental costs have increased by a little over 48 percent in Denver. That year was the last time I was actively searching for a home on the rental market. 2019 is when I was involuntarily displaced from my rental home of eight years.

Just a few weeks before the inaugural Blackpacker’s campout, a single piece of paper taped to my door in an envelope informed me that my lease was not being renewed, and my son and I had a little over 30 days to find a new home in a market that is notoriously unaffordable. And it was only a few months after I originally discussed income and wealth inequities as the motivation behind founding my organization. I turned away from my son so he couldn’t see my tears, walked out to the parking lot into my car in the same parking spot I’d held for almost a decade and screamed and sobbed until I was tired. Then I told myself to put the fear away and focus on the event; throw myself into my work and return to my feelings later.

The weather was nearly perfect on August 17, 2019. There was a very strong breeze, but at Eleven Mile State Park, where you are surrounded by mountains on almost all sides, a blustery day is typical. Earlier in the summer I’d volunteered in the park as a Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) volunteer. My son and I lived out of a tent on the south shore of Eleven Mile as camp hosts. It was a humbling experience that exposed how convenient our modern life has become. Our mornings were organized and structured: Turn the heater on, get some water boiling for oatmeal on my camping stove, hike to the bathroom, complete our morning hygiene—while it was below freezing outside. All this, while sitting on a hill above a still partially frozen reservoir.

The relationships I relationships I built living there, combined with the extraordinary beauty of the park, are what made me pick Eleven Mile State Park for our first event. The rangers and naturalist I grew close to led workshops and information sessions. We had a fishing clinic, Leave No Trace workshop and a moonlight hike, among other activities.

One of the most perfect days as camp hosts on the south shore of Eleven Mile State Park came in the very beginning of the season. My son and I had left the screens open on either side of our tent and played cards while we remarked on just how much of the ice on the reservoir had melted since our initial arrival. A very Eleven Mile—specific wind blew between the two screen doors and collapsed the sides of our tent in. That day, the walls stood back up as soon as the wind shifted directions. On the campout, we weren’t so lucky.

The Blackpackers crew returned back to camp from a fishing clinic to find one of my camper’s brand-new tents, purchased specifically for this event, torn completely apart. Both tent poles had snapped in half and punched through the rain fly. My neighbor-volunteer and I came across it first as we led the group back to our site. We both turned to each other in absolute horror. It wasn’t that we didn’t have backup shelters, but how disappointed would my camper be when they found the tent they spent hundreds on was now in shambles?

Planning any event can be overwhelming. Overnight camping trips are particularly difficult to plan. Between costs, scheduling, risk management and legal liabilities, there is a lot to cover. My first concern was gathering the resources necessary to take a large group camping—many of whom would not have their own gear, and some who had never been camping  before.

I had some lovely partners in those efforts. One of my New Leaders Council colleagues did a call for donations and brought me a car full of used gear; I myself bought sleeping bags, sleeping pads, headlamps and various other camping items. I shared my goals with my employer and received even more support.

My day job is as the community outreach coordinator for an outdoor adventure shop. Currently, my store is skis and snowboards and goggles and helmets, but in the summer we ambled through aisles filled with backpacking and camping gear. Between the customer questions and merchandising, my manager and I discussed my upcoming event. He stopped in front of a display of tents and appeared to consider the contents before turning to me and offering to donate two four-person tents to Blackpackers’ and my first event. This is how many of my campers obtained a shelter for the overnight.

Half of my group rode up in a shuttle chartered by Rocky Mountain Ride. I’d had the pleasure of meeting the owners previously, and they were so on board with the Blackpackers mission that they donated their services for the two days it required to transport my group to and from the park. Obtaining transportation is central to the Blackpackers mission; not everyone is used to driving through mountain passes or has a car that is able to do so.

Two of my Manitou neighbors overheard me talking about plans for the first campout and offered their help. They are both vegan and offered to make vegan breakfast burritos for the group. Then the two volunteered to man the grill and oversee the food for the outing. Later, I would watch while a journalist from Colorado Public Radio recorded the noise from the grill for his upcoming radio spot.

In it Together: The author and her son working as camp hosts. Photos courtesy Patricia Cameron

That broken tent didn’t stay down for long. My neighbor slash camp cook helped to move the tent to a more sheltered area among the trees. I dug through my supplies and found some super durable tape; the two journalists helped to tape of the poles and the rain fly and get the shelter back up, wind- and water-tight. The family promised us that even though there was a mini-disaster on their first camping trip, it wouldn’t deter them from camping in the future.

Back home, with the adrenaline from a successful event leveling out and the exhaustion creeping up to me, I crawled back into my bed. I moved my hands over my weighted blanket and felt the envelope containing the notice of nonrenewal of my lease. I sat back up, reminded of the upcoming struggle but no longer felt the same despair. The campout was over and I could hear all of my building neighbors downstairs preparing for one of our many summer night barbecues. I still didn’t know what I was going to do, but instead of spending my last days in Manitou alone in my bedroom, I joined them. They were just one of the communities that caught me, and I knew another community would be there to catch me as I plummeted into an uncertain September.

Less than a year after I first announced my intentions, Blackpackers is now a 501(c)(3)pending organization. None of the work we have accomplished could have been possible without the support of Colorado Springs and beyond. The economic inequities facing some members of our community can best be addressed with an equally community-centered problem-solving approach. If wealth is inherited on a micro scale between families, I believe we can create a similar social system to do the same to the greater community. Our inaugural campout was a perfect example of pooling resources for the benefit of all, including myself.

Patricia Cameron is the founder of Blackpackers, as of 2020 a non profit dedicated to getting as many people out into nature as possible, and to completely subsidize the cost of these expeditions.

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